Information feeds are one piece of the ubiquitous computing puzzle
In the world model of ubiquitous computing, aka, “Things that think,” significant physical objects have intelligence, temporary storage, sensing components, and often form computing networks. These wireless sensor networks are usually pretty sophisticated: One popular networking protocol is Zigbee, based on the IEEE 802.15.4 standard. (I met with Redpine Signals at ESC – they make an excellent argument for using the 802.11n WiFi protocol for sensor networks, but that’s for another post.)
However, I’m seeing another approach to communications for these proliferating objects that are just so eager to talk with something: Twitter feeds. You’re probably familiar with Twitter, the micro-blogging platform that constrains posters to a brusque 140-character limit. It’s a simple yet robust method for posting 140 characters in a stream out to the world for online monitoring. Less well-known is that Twitter has a search function that’s much closer to monitoring information in real-time than Google’s search, and no wonder, since Twitter’s searchable content is a fraction of the size of the HTML pages Google attempts to keep up to date.
When a feed becomes a de facto standard a snowball effect can occur: Blogs, which are part of the Web firmament now, didn’t really catch on until RSS feeds made following them simple and quick. Here are three examples of Twitter feeds making their way into the world of thinking objects.
- Tweet-a-watt: Take a $20 Kill-o-watt power meter, open it up, add a XBee "series 1" point-to-multipoint 802.15.4 module that transmits the voltage and current measured by the Kill-o-watt to a receiving XBee module. Or, as Adafruit , the Tweet-a-Watts originator puts it, “filet, stuff and reassemble the Kill-a-Watt with a radio inside.”
The receiving XBee module plugs into a USB port on your computer and receives data from the (modifified) Kill-o-watt, then goes into your Twitter account every few hours and Tweets the volts and current. Anyone – or thing- who has web access can access the power data. Take a look for yourself at the Tweetawatt feed here. Note that the Tweet-a-Watt doesn’t do the tweeting: It transmits the data to the receiving computer, which then runs a Python script that periodically accesses Twitter and updates the feed. (ie, “tweets”).
- BakerTweet: "BakerTweet is a way for busy bakers to tell the world that something hot and fresh has just come out of the oven. It’s as simple as turning the dial and hitting the button. All of the baker’s followers get a Twitter alert to tell them that it’s bun-time."
The box shown has a knob that lets the busy baker select the bakery item that’s just come out of the oven, then push a button to wirelessly transmit the info to the bakery computer, which logs onto Twitter and sends out a Tweet to its feed subscribers that fresh bread is ready.
"BakerTweet allows businesses to use Twitter to communicate in real-time about offers, pricing and stock from a device that can withstand kitchen peril and is much simpler to operate than a laptop or a mobile." The first BakerTweet device is at the Albion Cafe on Boundary Street in Shoreditch, London. http://twitter.com/albionsoven.
- Medical implants: ok, this one doesn’t currently exist, as far as I know. I heard it discussed in an ubiquitous computing seminar. A chip implanted in the diabetic patient would monitor blood sugar, transmit the information to a receiving station that packages the information for intermittent tweets to a monitoring account – could be the patient’s doctor, nutritionist, health insurance company – whatever. And oh yeah, the privacy issues will be legion.
In all of the examples, there’s nothing magic about Twitter itself. It’s useful because it’s a ubiquitous, simple, well-defined, accepted and supported information feed.
Speaking of which, you can follow me on Twitter: www.twitter.com/margeryc
 If Adafruit sounds familiar, it may be because your read 15 steps to starting your own electronic kit business, which was based on a talk given by Adafruit founder Limor Fried, at last year’s Maker Faire.